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More families are relying on schools to feed their children breakfast, lunch, and now dinner. In the last few years, a federally-subsidized school dinner program has spread from six states to all 50.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez from Connecticut, parents say they now have nowhere to turn but schools.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Not long after the start of the school year, Monique Sanders, a teacher at Nathan Hale Elementary in Manchester, Connecticut, realized many of her students were going to bed hungry.

MONIQUE SANDERS: It was very bad. I had parents calling me several times a week asking did I know of any other way that they can get food, 'cause they had already gone to a food pantry. The food pantry only allows you to go twice per month, so if you are running low on your food stamps, or you didn't get what you needed, and you're not able to feed your family, that's very stressful.

SANCHEZ: In class, says Sanders, that meant stressed out kids with stomach aches, unable to concentrate and lots of acting out.

SANDERS: They have anger issues. They don't know what's going on sometimes at home, so that comes into the school.

SANCHEZ: So last February, Nathan Hale Elementary began a dinner program for children enrolled in after school activities.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN AT PLAY)

SANDERS: Wait. Wait, we just have to wait for this car to stop. Alright guys, come on.

SANCHEZ: On this night, Sanders shepherds a few dozen children, ages 6-to-11, from the old renovated fire station that houses the after school program to the school cafeteria across the street.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: When is the food?

SANCHEZ: On tonight's menu?

KATHLEEN FIENGO: It's Chicken Alfredo with mixed vegetables. And we also have a bagel plate.

Veggies, dear?

FAITH RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

: How are you, Faith?

RODRIGUEZ: Good.

SANCHEZ: Kathleen Fiengo has worked in school cafeterias for 25 years. Preparing supper for students is a first for her.

: The kids are so grateful. They are so polite and they just absolutely love it.

SANCHEZ: Thirty-year-old Jose Rodriguez says he's thankful knowing his daughter, Faith, has had a good dinner.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ: She doesn't come home hungry. It does help because her mom works late shifts and I just recently lost my job. I was a operations and sales manager for a company that we detail and refurbish private aircraft.

SANCHEZ: Rodriguez and his wife are struggling to pay their $1,300 monthly rent, car, utilities, gas. He says whatever's left is for food.

RODRIGUEZ: I still feed them, of course. But it does make it harder. You know, less money you have in your pocket is less money you have for food and everything.

SANCHEZ: Still, some parents don't like the idea of school feeding their kids dinner.

RHONDA BOLLING: And I was really shocked when they said that, 'cause I'm like, dinner?

SANCHEZ: That's parents' responsibility, says Rhonda Bolling. She doesn't allow her daughter, a first grader, to stay for dinner after school.

BOLLING: I pick up my daughter at five, 5:15, because she comes home and have dinner with me.

SANCHEZ: Its a crutch for some parents, says Bolling.

BOLLING: Some people have a bunch of kids, they're not working. They're not doing anything. They're dependent on the system.

SANCHEZ: Its a view echoed on talk radio. Rush Limbaugh has denounced school dinners as the latest manifestation of the nanny state.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: I am stunned here, because if we're going to feed kids supper at school, why go home? Just raise them all 24/7 at the school. All they do at home is sleep.

KATE ENGLAND: I say how can you argue with feeding a child who's hungry?

SANCHEZ: That's Kate England, the principal at Nathan Hale. She says schools wouldn't have to provide dinner if kids didn't need it; if the economy had not hit the skids and left so many parents jobless or with only part time work.

ENGLAND: There are people with college degrees working at Starbucks right now.

SANCHEZ: During the worst part of Manchester's economic downturn, the unemployment rate topped nine percent. Its fallen in the last few months but school officials here say families are still hurting. So they expect the number of kids in the dinner program to grow.

Organizations that have studied the impact the recession has had on child hunger say the national figures are alarming. From 2007 to 2010, the number of households that were food insecure jumped from 36 million to 49 million.

REPRESENTATIVE JOE COURTNEY: Its those kinds of statistics that I think the public needs to be aware of. Because that's the only way you're going to get any focus on trying to change budget priorities.

SANCHEZ: Congressman Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, represents the southeastern part of the state. His district has been hit hard by job losses and rising levels of poverty.

COURTNEY: This, again, is not sort of your image of sort of urban poverty. It is actually a lot more sort of rural and small town struggles. And what we've seen during the downturn is actually an uptick in terms of food banks in suburban communities, so that you can really see the ripple effect of income loss.

SANCHEZ: Courtney says in one school district he has visited, for example, the number of kids in the dinner program has tripled since November - from 80 to 250.

So, even if Connecticut's economic picture continues to improve, the state is still counting on more federal aid to expand the school dinner program.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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